Veterans allege religious discrimination in chapel

VA says neutral space for worship respects all faiths

A Veterans Health Administration (VA) hospital's move to make its chapel religiously neutral by removing Christian symbols except during Christian services is under fire by two veterans who are considering legal action over what they say is suppression of Christians' freedom of religion.

Until late September 2007, the chapel at Fayetteville (NC) Veterans Affairs Medical Center had a cross and Bible on permanent display except during services conducted by other religious faiths. However, the Veterans Health Administration's National Chaplain Center stepped in when it was notified that the hospital's chapel was being used as an exclusively Protestant Christian chapel, with Christian religious articles and symbols continuously present.

The National Chaplain Center directed the chaplain at the Fayetteville hospital to bring the chapel into compliance with VA policy by removing symbols of a denominational nature immediately after Christian services and returning the chapel to its "religiously neutral state" for the use of patients or family for private devotions, says Ev Chasen, VHA chief communications officer.

It was the removal of the cross and Bible from permanent display that led two veterans, both of whom volunteer at the hospital, to lodge a complaint with the hospital, write editorials in local newspapers, and finally, threaten legal action.

Chapel for Christians, separate space for others?

John Whitehead, JD, president of the Rutherford Institute, a nonprofit, conservative legal group that litigates for religious causes, says his group has taken up the veterans' complaint against the VA hospital because there is more at stake than the presence of a Bible and cross in the hospital chapel.

"The general issue is the secularizing of the hospital," says Whitehead. As of early December, Whitehead said there had been no legal action taken, but that the hospital had been mailed a letter asking that the chapel be restored to a place of Christian worship.

"Our suggestion is to mollify concerns by letting Christian symbols remain in the Christian chapel, then creating [a separate] interfaith chapel that all other religions could use," says Whitehead. The veterans who have enlisted Whitehead's help maintain that most of the veterans using the VA chapel are Christian, and should be afforded a chapel with permanent Christian symbols on display.

Asked if permitting Christians to have a unique chapel while grouping all other religions into one neutral interfaith chapel is not also discriminatory, Whitehead said it is not.

"[The VA has] gone into a Christian chapel and wiped out Christian references," he says. "Secularizing in that way isn't neutral, it's hostile. They've put up curtains over the stained glass windows to block the Christian images — why not just knock out the stained glass windows?"

Chasen, however, says the chapel was never "a Christian chapel."

"VHA policy going back to the 1950s has addressed the proper use of VA chapels," Chasen explains. "Most VA medical center chapels, including the Fayetteville chapel, were built as what might be called 'all faith' chapels and were to be utilized for religious services for all faith groups."

Chasen says VA policy requires that its chapels be kept open and available for meditation and prayer by veterans and their families of all faiths, and VA chaplains are responsible for setting the chapels up with appropriate religious symbols, pictures, and other items that will permit people of particular faiths to pray or conduct worship services. When worship services are complete, Chasen says, the religious items particular to a religious group are expected to be removed, stored, and the chapel returned to a neutral state appropriate for anyone to use.

"VA believes that meeting the spiritual and pastoral care needs of veteran patients is an important part of the healing process," Chasen says. "Our care of the veteran and his or her family begins with respect for who they are and what they believe. The changes made in the Fayetteville chapel reflect our commitment to respect and care for all our honored veterans."

Sources

For more information, contact:

  • John Whitehead, JD, founder and president, The Rutherford Institute, Charlottesville, VA. Phone: (434) 978-3888.
  • Ev Chasen, chief communications officer, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Veterans Health Administration, Washington, DC. Phone: (202) 273-6410.